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Liberal Group: Investigate Scalia and Thomas Over Citizens United Conflicts of Interest

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, left, accompanied by his wife Virginia Lamp Thomas, right, listen as he is introduced prior to speaking at the Federalist Society in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007. AP Photo

Updated: 6:59PM ET

Liberal nonprofit Common Cause is asking the Department of Justice to investigate Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia in relation to the Citzens United Supreme Court case, arguing that their decision in the case raised "serious questions about the impartiality of" both justices.

"It appears both justices have participated in political strategy sessions, perhaps while the case was pending, with corporate leaders whose political aims were advanced by the decision," writes Common Cause President and CEO Bob Edgar in a petition to the Justice Department filed this week.

The organization contends that the justices should have recused themselves from the case, which opened the door to greater spending by corporations on election campaigns -- and that the controversial 5-4 decision in the case should be vacated.

The groups cited as evidence the apparent appearances of Thomas and Scalia at past political retreats sponsored by energy and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries. (The New York Times reported last year that the latest invitation to the event advertises Scalia and Thomas as previous guests at the retreats.)

Common Cause argues that if either justice "attended or spoke at a Koch Industries meeting" between 2008 and 2010 - during which period the court was considering various aspects of Citizens United - "it would certainly raise serious issues of the appearance of impropriety and bias." The invitation did not specify when the justices had attended the retreats in the past.

According to the blog Legal Times, both Scalia and Thomas have reported reimbursements by the conservative Federalist Society for trips that may coincide with Koch retreats: Scalia reported in 2008 that the Federalist Society reimbursed him for a Jan. 29, 2007 speech in Indian Wells, California. In 2009, Thomas reported a reimbursement by the Federalist Society for a Jan. 28-29, 2008 speech in Palm Springs.

Koch Industries operates a foundation, Americans for Prosperity, that spent millions on ads during the 2010 campaign attacking Democratic candidates.

"The Kochs' support for deregulation of campaign spending is well documented," the complaint reads.

In its letter to the Department of Justice, Common Cause also pointed to the conservative organization Liberty Central, which was formed by Thomas' wife Virginia, as another potential conflict of interest. Liberty Central, which takes money from anonymous donors, endorsed about a dozen candidates in the 2010 elections. It is unclear whether or by how much the group is funded by corporations, but Virginia Thomas has said in the past that she would accept donations from them.

"The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, issued on January 21, 2010, provided a substantial benefit to Liberty Central while Ms. Thomas was its CEO by enabling it to raise and spend corporate funds directly advocating the defeat or election of political candidates for the first time in more than 60 years," the Common Cause petition argues. (Thomas relinquished control of the group in November.)

Representatives for Common Cause acknowledge that the group faces an uphill battle in having the decision overturned, but argue that the principle is worth fighting for.

"We're treading in new territory here for us," Common Cause's Arn H. Pearson told the New York Times. "But a situation like this raises fundamental questions about public confidence in the Supreme Court."